Secretary of the Health and Human Services Department
Stanford University, Stanford Law School
Xavier Becerra is back in Washington after a four-year absence, but it’s under dramatically different circumstances. This time, he’s a Cabinet secretary running a department with 80,000 employees and a $1 trillion-plus budget. And he’ll be trying to help the country recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, the worst public-health crisis in a century.
The son of immigrant parents, Becerra has risen from humble origins to a prominent position in Washington’s political firmament. He was the first in his family to graduate from college, Stanford University and then went onto Stanford Law School. After a stint in the California Attorney General’s office, Becerra won a seat in the state assembly. Two years later, the ambitious Becerra jumped to Capitol Hill. In 2006, he was elected to the party leadership, eventually rising to Democratic Caucus chair. But Becerra was stymied from moving up any further in leadership. In 2016, Becerra resigned from Congress to become California attorney general. His timing was perfect. In that role, Becerra gained a national reputation as a thorn in President Donald Trump’s side, filing well over 100 lawsuits against the Trump administration.
Senate Republicans criticized Becerra during his confirmation hearings for his lack of public health policy experience, a big liability to them as the country still wrestles with Covid-19. Yet Becerra is extremely bright, has excellent political skills, and can rely on strong relationships with Hill Democrats. Becerra stays relentlessly on message, he’s famous for that. He has also run a good-sized state agency; the California AG’s office has more 4,500 employees and a $1 billion budget. HHS had some serious bureaucratic infighting under Trump that Becerra needs to fix. There’s significant repair work required at FDA and CDC, both of which took big hits in their standing during the pandemic.
Inside his orbit:
Words of Wisdom:
My advice would be that he’s the forward face of the department, both to Congress and constituencies across the board. Eleven operating agencies. It is truly like drinking from a fire hose.
Having a chance to allocate his time and energy to making sure all the agencies get some attention, and that constituencies — whether the Administration for Children and Families to the NIH — know that he’s concerned and interested and committed to the mission of the department is really important. The bulk of the work of any department is done by the career staff. Recognizing their value, their expertise, and hopefully convincing them that the mission of the Biden administration is one that involves everyone, is critical.
Former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius
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